In the antiquity of art, there are many curiosities that are reflective of their era and our reaction to them is a testament to the swift linearity of the passage of time. Medical art from the past has long been considered an oddity, largely due to the advances both in medicine and how we visually map it and our correspondingly skewed perceptions. None, however, are as odd as Japan’s 19th-century Kaibo Zonshinzu.
Western medicine has had Leonardo da Vinci’s intimate portrayals of the muscular make-up of man, then later, the iconic and exhaustive Gray’s Anatomy. Whilst these seek to depict the human body as accurately as possible - Japan’s equivalent is peculiar in its choice to intricately and informatively depict anatomy with a great emphasis on the human as much as the organs.
The Kaibo Zonshinzu’s style is particularly in keeping with the prevailing art of the time, however, veered into a different direction through its subject matter - focussing on the grisly interiors of the carefully crafted figures. Painted in 1819 by Kyoto-based physician Yasukazu Minagaki, his book showed the anatomical process as something grisly, almost as if he was using corpses found in the aftermath of a battlefield to ply his trade on.
That might sound like a slightly wild comparison, but he did indeed model his drawings on the severed heads of convicts. Imagining Minagaki working away, delicately portraying the macabre evokes something out of a gothic novel or an extreme Asian horror film.
It doesn’t seem as if his intentions were from a place of sadism though. Many of the Western depictions of anatomical art display the being as a living thing - an impossibility if half of their scalp had been peeled off. So, with a perverse approach to empathy, Minagaki portrays his specimens as alive and suffering in great pain. One shudders to think that this was based on real-life.
As mysterious as the images are, so too are their origins. Little is known beyond the fact that Japan had only began corresponding with European scholars as part of the Rangaku movement - literally translating to ‘Dutch Learning’ on account of the cultural exchange with the Dutch population on the Dejima trading post, located on one of the country’s peninsulas.
Containing over 40 dissections with 83 corresponding paintings, the scroll eschewed the Greek orientated poses, postures and artistic style used in Western anatomical drawings in favour of a style that better reflected the Japanese psyche at the time. It was bold, pioneering and ultimately a functional work of art.
In 2003, Japan’s Ministry of Culture acknowledged the scroll’s historical worth as a defining part of the country’s process of modernisation during the Edo period. During this time, Japan’s society was beginning to shift from the ‘old’ Japan, ruled by ancient beliefs and rituals, to one more becoming to interactions with outside forces and a sense of trajectory towards the future.
A unique entry into the art of medicine, its pioneering approach has made this a significant document in mapping the way Japan of old became the Japan of now. Moreover, the scrolls are an access point into the mind of somebody who was capable and willing to tread on new ground and drag himself and his country’s science community into the future with him.
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